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Notes on DeYoung’s Review of Thompson and Kwon

April 22nd, 2021 | 5 min read

By Jake Meador

We are going to be reviewing the book in some fashion on the main page (I see you, Sarah). That said, given Kevin DeYoung’s review at TGC this morning, I wanted to put up some quick notes replying to what I see as several of the weak points in his review. (I apologize if this seems like my personal blog is becoming a space for quibbling with TGC content, by the way.)

DeYoung on Lincoln

So to start with a factual point: DeYoung says this near the end of his review:

So the question must naturally be asked: when and how can that debt be discharged? Did the 700,000 lives lost and quadrupling of the national debt during the Civil War count as any sort of reparation? Was Lincoln justified, in any sense, when he claimed that every drop of blood drawn with the lash had been paid for with blood drawn by the sword?

This is actually a pretty significant misreading of Lincoln’s words from his Second Inaugural. Here is what Lincoln actually said:

Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’

In other words: DeYoung thinks Lincoln said that the Civil War was America paying back every drop of blood drawn by the lash with a drop of blood drawn by the sword. That’s almost the opposite of his claim, however.

Lincoln is saying that if we have to pay back every drop of blood drawn by the lash with a drop drawn by the sword, still we cannot complain. The horrors of the Civil War and whatever followed was, Lincoln is saying, God’s righteous judgment on our nation. So it’s not correct to claim that Lincoln thought the Civil War in itself repaid that debt. He did not.

So that’s the first point.

What are reparations owed for?

Second, though DeYoung mentions redlining near the end of the review, he mostly doesn’t deal with it as it relates to the argument for reparations. He focuses instead on slavery. This leads to one of the other howlers in the review, but I’ll get there in a second.

One of the key elements of the argument for reparations is that generational losses of wealth reverberate in a community for a very long time, particularly losses of wealth on the scale of those experienced by black Americans. So the concern with reparations isn’t simply about restoring what was stolen via slavery, but via other injustices as well, including redlining.

Here’s another example—and I haven’t read the book yet so I don’t know if Thompson and Kwon go here or not. I lived in St Paul, MN for a year after college. I was a mile or so north of I-94 on Lexington Pkwy and about three miles north of the Selby-Dale neighborhood, one of the main black neighborhoods in the city. During my time there, I had the chance to work at a black-owned business in Selby-Dale. (The owner was born in Omaha and is a big sports fan fan. One day I wandered into the store, we hit it off, and he ended up offering me a job.)

The reason Selby-Dale became a major neighborhood for the black community there is because the oldest black neighborhood in St Paul, Rondo, was destroyed to make room for the building of I-94. During my time working in Selby-Dale I got to speak with a lot of long-time residents who had memories of Rondo. The loss of Rondo to the black community in St Paul was catastrophic. They lost businesses. They lost families. After all, many of the leaders of Rondo reasoned that St Paul clearly didn’t want them there so they packed up and moved away. This was an act of theft perpetrated against the black community that happened in the past 75 years. What was stolen needs to be restored.

There are other stories of black neighborhoods being destroyed for similar reasons. When that happened, there were very concrete losses of wealth on the basis of race. Reparations are owed for that. And these are usually crimes that took place in the last 75 years.

When did these injustices happen?

Back to slavery. One of the stranger moments in the review is when DeYoung cites an excerpt from Tillotson’s sermons on reparations that Kwon and Thompson left out of the book. You can click through to the review to see the Tillotson excerpt. The short version is that Tillotson was preaching in the 18th century UK and noting that there is a time limit of sorts to reparations. To explain what he meant in concrete terms, he cited the invasion of the island by the Saxons, Danes, and Normans.

To be clear: Tillotson was preaching in 1707. The Saxon invasions happened between 500 and 800 AD so far as we can tell. The Danes were invading regularly between 800 and 1100 or thereabouts, and the Norman invasion happened in 1066. So Tillotson is dealing with invasions that had happened, at their most recent, 600 years prior. Yet here is DeYoung commenting on the sermon:

In other words, in the midst of two sermons strongly advocating for reparations (the word is used often), Tillotson acknowledges that, unfortunately, in a fallen world you can’t go back in time and right every wrong. Sometimes there are “infinite difficulties” which prohibit us from determining who was wrong, who did the wrong, and how restitution could possibly be made in the present without inflicting new wrongs. Sometimes the “necessities of the world” make restitution for crimes committed in the past impossible.

What DeYoung says is true so far as it goes. Yet to compare the hypothetical question of reparations for the Norman invasion being taken up 600 years after the fact with the question of reparations to black Americans for offenses that are sometimes quite recent and, at their most distant, are only 150 years old, is bizarre. It is true we can’t go back in time and right every wrong. But Lincoln himself thought we might (justly!) spend 250 years making restitution for slavery alone. And that was before the end of reconstruction, before share cropping, before lynching, before Jim Crow, before red lining, before mass incarceration, and on down the list.

Anyway, there is more that can be said, but I thought these points were relatively simpler to address and so I wanted to do that here. We’ll have more coverage of the book on the main site in the weeks to come, I hope.

UPDATE: Sorry, one more thought occurred to me after publishing.

So DeYoung’s approach to this problem also strikes me as being extremely individualistic in a way that just can’t hold up for long if read alongside the prophets or OT history. If we only pay reparations for our own sins or the sins of very close ancestors, how do we square that with the fact that the OT is constantly talking about generational sins and one generation paying for the sins of previous generations, sometimes quite distant generations? How, for example, on DeYoung’s framing of justice can God be just in sending Daniel, Ezekiel, and the other exiles into 70 years of captivity on the basis of 490 years of Israel violating the Sabbath year? That’s God holding people accountable for sins that happened almost as far back as the hypothetical Tillotson finds unreasonable, in fact. Anyway, I’ll try not to keep updating the post, but I wanted to make this point as well in the same place as the above points.

Second update: I’ve amended the language above re: Lincoln’s second inaugural because what I said originally is over-stated. But I’m keeping the original here in interests of transparency and editorial integrity. Lincoln is saying that even if God decrees that America would spend 250 years paying for all the injustices of 250 years of slavery, to such a degree that every drop of blood drawn by the lash is repaid by a drop drawn by the sword, even then, America cannot complain but must say “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” 250 years after Lincoln spoke those words would be 2115, by the way, so Lincoln is saying we still have a long way to go.)

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).